Prime Minister of Sri Lanka
|April 17, 1916
|October 10, 2000
|Sri Lanka Freedom Party
Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike (April 17, 1916 – October 10, 2000) was a politician from Sri Lanka. She was prime minister of Sri Lanka three times, 1960-1965, 1970-1977 and 1994-2000, and was the world's first female prime minister. She was a leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. She was the wife of a previous Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Solomon Bandaranaike and the mother of Sri Lanka's third President Chandrika Kumaratunga. She was also mother of Anura Bandaranaike, Sri Lankan Tourism Minister and Sunethra Bandaranaike, philanthropist. A committed socialist, she aimed to raise the standard of living of her people and to reduce inequality. She succeeded in the latter but high government spending also resulted in economic stagnation. Her pro-Buddhist and pro-Sinhalese policies alienated the Tamil minority, resulting in a bloody civil war. Since 1983, about 68,000 people have lost their lives. Although relations with her own children have at times been strained, they have nonetheless followed her into public service. Despite the civil war that blemishes her record, to have served, as a woman, three terms as Prime Minister is no insignificant achievement. That an Asian woman, too, became the first ever female Prime Minister somewhat challenges the notion that Western countries have made greater strides in equalizing gender opportunities.
Sirimavo was raised in a wealthy Sinhalese family. In 1940, she married the politician Solomon Bandaranaike, leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and Prime Minister between 1956 and his assassination in 1959. At the request of senior party members, Mrs Bandaranaike accepted the leadership of the party and the following year won the general election and became Prime Minister. She remained leader of the party for the next forty years. Her first term in office ended in 1965 but she served two additional terms, 1970-77 and 1994-2000. In 1977 she was crushingly defeated and her party held onto only eight of the total of 168 parliamentary seats. In 1980 she was expelled from parliament and banned from politics. Pardoned in 1986, she reentered the political arena. Although she failed to gain the Presidency in 1988, she again won a parliamentary seat in 1989 where she led the opposition to the government. In the election of August 1994, her daughter Chandrika became Prime Minister but when she won the Presidency in November of that year, she appointed her mother to her third term as Prime Minister. A decline in her health resulted in her resignation in August 2000.
A staunch socialist, Bandaranaike continued her husband's policies of nationalizing key sectors of the economy, such as banking and insurance. Unfortunately, she was on a roller-coaster ride from the moment she took office and within a year of her 1960 election victory she declared a state of emergency. This followed a civil disobedience campaign by part of the country's minority Tamil population who were outraged by her decision to drop English as an official language and her order to conduct all government business in Sinhala, the language of the majority Sinhalese. This they considered a highly discriminatory act and an attempt to deny Tamils access to all official posts and the law. This led to an increase in Tamil militancy which escalated under succeeding administrations. Bandaranaike pursed policies that encouraged the Buddhist religion, promoted Sinhalese and Buddhist culture, which alienated the Tamil minority.
Further problems arose with the President's state takeover of foreign businesses, particularly the petroleum companies, which upset the Americans and the British, who imposed an aid embargo on Sri Lanka. As a result, Bandaranaike moved her country closer to China and the Soviet Union and championed a policy of nonalignment or of neutrality in international affairs. At home, she crushed an attempted military coup in 1962. In 1964, she entered into a historic coalition with the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP). At the end of that year, she was defeated on a confidence vote, losing the general election that followed. Six years later she bounced back, her United Front winning a substantial majority in the 1970 elections.
Her second term saw a new Constitution introduced, which ended the country's status as a Commonwealth realm. Ceylon was renamed Sri Lanka and declared a republic. But after just 16 months in power, a left-wing youth uprising almost toppled her government—Sri Lanka's small ceremonial army could not deal with the insurgency. She was saved by her skillful foreign policy when the country's non-aligned friends rushed to her help. In a rare move, both India and Pakistan sent troops to Colombo to aid Bandaranaike in crushing the insurgency. In those tough political years, she turned herself into a formidable leader. "She was the only man in her cabinet," one of her officials commented during the height of the insurgency.
The 1973 oil crisis had a traumatic effect on the Sri Lankan economy; the government had no access to Western aid and her socialist policies stifled economic activity. Rationing had to be imposed. Bandaranaike became more and more intolerant of criticism and forced the shutdown of the Independent newspaper group, whose publications were her fiercest critics. Earlier she had nationalized the country's largest newspaper, Lake House, which has remained the government's official mouthpiece. Her policies reduced inequality but created economic stagnation and directly contributed to the civil war that has waged in the North East of the country since 1983. The Tamil population complains of discrimination and demand independence or autonomy. Tamil has been re-recognized as an official language, however, but despite some positive developments, peace has not yet been achieved. Chandrika won the 1994 election promising peace but a 1995 cease-fire was short lived.
Style of functioning
Known to her fellow Sri Lankans as "Mrs. B," she could skillfully use popular emotion to boost her support, frequently bursting into tears as she pledged to continue her dead husband's policies. He, Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike, was shot dead by a man dressed as a Buddhist monk in 1959. Her opponents and critics called her the "weeping widow" .
By 1976, Bandaranaike was more respected abroad than at home. Her great triumph that year was to become chairman of the Non-Aligned Movement and host the largest heads of state conference the country had ever seen. Despite her high standing internationally, she was losing Sri Lankan support rapidly amid allegations of corruption and against the background of a rapidly declining economy. Nothing, it seemed, could save her. She suffered a crushing election defeat in 1977 and was stripped of her civic rights. The 1980s were her dark days—she became a political outcast rejected by the people who had once worshipped her. Banadaranaike spent the next 17 years in opposition warding off challenges to her leadership of the SLFP, even from her own children. Always the politician, she played her ambitious daughter, Chandrika, and son, Anura, against one another, holding on to control despite losing every subsequent general election. She finally met her match in Chandrika who outmaneuvered her mother to become Prime Minister of Sri Lanka in 1994, when a SLFP-led coalition won power in the general elections, and President the following year. Her son, Anura joined the United National Party in 1993.
Bandaranaike became Prime Minister again, but the constitution had changed since her last tenure; she, as the Prime Minister was subordinate to her daughter, the President. She remained in until office just a few months before her death, but had little real power. She died on election day, having cast her vote for the last time.
Bandaranaike is mainly remembered for policies that alienated that Tamil minority and fueled the confict that has waged in Sri Lanka since 1983. However, she can not solely be blamed for causing the civil war, since her policies were widely supported by a majority of the population through the electoral ballot. The wish to promote and strengthen her nation's cultural heritage resulted in large measure from the post-colonial context of cutting colonial apron strings. She may not, in her enthusiasm to forge a Sri Lankan identity, have realized the consequences this would have for non-Sinhalese Sri Lankans. Effectively, the British model had been to encourage a sense of belonging to the British Empire that transcended race and religion. In reacting against what she saw as an enforced common culture, she replaced this with that of the dominant group rather than with a new Sri Lankan identity that was inclusive of both of its main communities. This illustrates the challenge facing many former colonies as they assert a post-colonial identity and seek to value what was often devalued by the colonial powers, that is, their own cultural heritage. She earned her place in history as the world's first ever female prime minister and as mother of her nation's first female head of state.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Liswood, Laura A. Women World Leaders: Fifteen Great Politicians Tell Their Stories. London: Pandora, 1995. ISBN 9780044409045
- Manor, James. The Expedient Utopian: Bandaranaike and Ceylon. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press, 1989. ISBN 0521371910
- Opfell, Olga S. Women Prime Ministers and Presidents. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co, 1993. ISBN 9780899507903
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